Wednesday, September 02, 2020

"The Essential Doug Holder: New and Selected Poems" review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili

 Doug Holder

THE ESSENTIAL DOUG HOLDER New & Selected Works  $15 Big Table Publishing 

Review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili



Doug Holder’s poetry is an examination of people and things, but more importantly their patinas. In many of the poems there is a gentle awareness conveyed to the reader—an acknowledgement that everything will eventually deteriorate. Holder’s poetry is subtle, deeply empathetic, and captures moments of vulnerability with unmatched elegance and fragility. In the poem “On the Ward: Stuffed Animals”, Holder writes

“At night
as you
check the rooms
the flashlight discovers
these animals
attached to grown
like suckling babes
held tightly
against the darkness—
memories of morning
the deep chasms
that were never
On these lonely
any union
will do” (Holder 48)


                On the cover of THE ESSENTIAL DOUG HOLDER New & Selected Works,  Doug Holder, the poet of the collection, stands modestly in the bottom right hand corner of his own book, his hands are placed defensively in his pockets, and under his arms he carries a newspaper. It is hard to tell if his weary eyes are gazing at you, at the ground, or if he lost in his own thoughts. Bold white text is superpositioned on the page, pushing the poet to the back of his own cover. The cover seems off balanced, as though the subject (Doug Holder) is about to leave the reader any minute. The background is composed mostly of silhouettes of trees and buildings, while the foreground is composed of shadows. The sun is either rising or setting, and a ray of sunlight falls on Holder. On the bottom of the page, a quote from Boston’s first Poet Laureate Sam Cornish reads “Holder is a poet of the street... an observer of the everyday… he sees the world not for what it is, but on his own terms”. At first, I thought that the picture was a strange choice for the cover of a book—surely, Holder had a centered picture of himself he could have used instead.  But, after reading Holder’s collection this cover art was in fact the perfect choice.

In the poem “
Life of the Party” Holder writes:

“After all,
you were
the center […]

the approving smiles
from the women
the perfect opiate
but never enough

And for this moment
you were a man
among men

And then
in the bathroom mirror
who was this imposter
short and bald
struggling with
his fly […]” (Holder 76)


 (Insert drumroll here) While you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or so we are told, in the case of this book, the cover art perfectly captures the essence of Holder’s style. Similar, to how Holder doesn’t stand in the center of his cover, his poetry employs innovative stylistic techniques that invite the reader into the poem without ever directly breaking the fourth wall. This is achieved by both the tone of the poems, and how vulnerable and honest the speaker of the poems makes himself. There is a “Confessional” quality to the poetry, yet unlike Confessional poetry the poetry is not as emotionally forceful. This often catches the reader off-guard, but the poems themselves are so well balanced—either thematically, or in their emotional content that the reader can easily regain their footing.

Holder uses ellipses, like no one else. Ellipses are normally used to exclude less relevant text from passages. You will often find Holder using ellipses to cut his own conclusions short, as though to indicate to the reader that his conclusions are not that important, or perhaps that he has not formed any. These unresolved conclusions become almost a rhetorical question that can significantly alter the meaning and tone of the poem. Take for instance the poem “A Dream of Minnie Baum”:

“She exchanges Yiddish for English with mother
tit for tat.

I am trapped…
my stomach leaden with chicken fat.
Bronx cheers from the pavement below” (Holder 80)

                In the poem above, the word ‘trapped’ is followed by an ellipsis. This leads the reader to wonder if the speaker is trying to escape. Depending on the answer, yes or no, the meaning of the poem can greatly change. The charm of Holder’s poetry is that it does not impose its views on the reader. It does not try to force a way of thinking on the reader. It draws a clear distinction between the ‘real world’, and the poet’s interpretation of the world. There are fantastical moments in Holder’s poetry, but the reader is rarely left wondering where the line between reality, and Holder’s interpretations of reality falls. At times they don’t align, and this is often where we see ellipses—omissions of conclusions, or pseudo-questions, where Holder seems to be asking himself and the reader how to negotiate “everyday observations with his own terms”.


                Confessional poetry is often extremely assertive. The emotions are so raw, that the reader is often overwhelmed and consumed by them—they impose their will on the reader. This can be a very powerful artistic choice, but ultimately limits the reader’s interpretive freedom. Holder’s poetry often includes very intimate details, but the raw emotions are toned down. Holder’s emotions do not convolute reality, and not force the reader to interpret events one way or another. Even though the poems are written from Holder’s point of view, the poems are not just about him. This allows the reader to explore Holder’s world with him—not just be passive listeners. For example on page 146, “ I don’t know why”, Holder writes:

“i don’t know why
i have visions of elevated tracks
subways defiantly roaring
at the dark
damaged men pawing costume
jewelry[…]” (Holder 146)

The first two lines of the poem start with “i”, yet they are both lowercase, which draws less attention to the repetition. This is followed by the powerful image of a “subway defiantly roaring at the dark”, followed by another powerful image. When Holder uses the word “i” in this poetry it is simply to provide the reader with context. 


The entire collection opens with the poem “Daddy, Is He a Monster?”

“A child caught sight of me on a bus
propped up on his seat
safe within his father’s fold
he said
“Is he a monster?”

My head
poking out of a protective shell of newspaper
a suspicious crab
peering at a threatening predator” (Holder 23)

Holder’s poetry shares very intimate details. Initially, this can throw the reader off a bit, because we just aren’t used to people sharing such personal thoughts. Thoughts that are so personal, we may even feel uncomfortable hearing them if some of our closest family or friends shared this information with us. But, Holder does not withhold much from his reader, but quickly the reader realizes that this honesty is what makes his work so captivating. At certain points you almost wonder if you are even supposed to be reading these extremely personal reflections. The poem “Unknown in a Crowd”, to some degree expresses this sentiment:

“And that’s when
you felt most at peace—
lost in the cornucopia.
like the multi-eyed
fly on the wall
away from the claustrophobic intimacy.
not observed
owner of you own dialogue…” (Holder 37)


                But, the reader despite being thrown off by the unguarded nature of the poems, can easily regain their footing, because of how Holder brilliantly balances everything. Opposing themes, and tones act as counterbalances to each other. The poem “At the Reading: Young Poet”, is a brilliant example of how Holder uses a poetry reading to explore the question of what is and isn’t worthy of art, and more importantly gives us insight into his own aesthetic philosophy.

“She talked of making love
as if a new discovery[…]
of old Cambridge Victorians
cigarette smoke
lipstick traces
romantic places
half-empty glasses
the lingering scent
remembered words…
phrases […]

From the corner
an old woman
lifted her head
from the rim of her shot glass
and cackled
breaking the spell:
“What’s the big deal, kid, and two dogs could do that.” (Holder 31)

This poem is particularly interesting because of its many layers. The young woman, and the old woman represent two opposite sides of the same coin. Both are in ways equally cliché. Yet, Holder finds them both to be equally important subjects, and he is simultaneously interested and critical of both. Using themes to counterbalance each other, is one-way Holder’s work keeps the reader constantly engaged. In another poem Holder writes, “The bridge/to the Bronx/a spurt of connective tissue./ Bridging a new limb to an old” (Holder 51).

                In addition to using themes as counterbalances, Holder also uses dramatic and comedic elements to create balance in his poems.  In the poem “First Night on the Job on the Psychiatric Ward”, Holder starts the poem off by painting a very dramatic scene. But the mythical elements are quickly pushed aside and replaced with humor. These sharp turns in poems, are particularly interesting because of how they change the pace of the poems without using any grammar or white space.

“The night seemed perfectly cast…
stormy, thunder and rain
the patient was biblical
long hair and a beard
with his staff at his command.

He put a paternal hand on me
and called me his finest creation
what could I do but thank him?
He smiled with divine patronization” (Holder 33)

Ravi Teja Yelamanchili currently works at Boston University as a Functional Analyst. His writing has previously been published in Ibbetson Street, The Muddy River Poetry Review, Somerville Times, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Muse India, and several other journals. He also won the Boston Mayor’s Poetry Program Contest.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ravi,

    Thank you for this interesting and very fine review.

    Best - Don